“A young animal kept too long in a cage will not be able to survive in the wild. When you open the door, it will be afraid to go out; if it does go out, it won’t know what to do because the world has become unfamiliar, an alien place.” – From On the Wildness of Children, by Carol Black
From sanitized playgrounds, to eerily quiet streets after school, to trigger warnings on college campuses designed to ‘protect’ our youth from words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense, we are raising a generation of children who won’t know what to do once released from their ‘safe’ cages into the real world.
No surprise 18-to 34 year olds are less likely to be living independently than they were in the depths of the Great Recession, or that many are choosing to isolate themselves in virtual worlds where they have greater control over outcomes.
“Child-rearing has gone from harm prevention to risk elimination,” says millennial author Malcolm Harris. “In the shadow of [the current] high-stakes rat-race, it’s no longer enough to graduate a kid from high school in one piece; if an American parent wants to give their child a chance at success, they can’t take any chances. In a reversal of the traditional ideas of childhood, it’s no longer a time to make mistakes; now it’s when bad choices have the biggest impact.”
The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
What many scared, but otherwise well-intentioned parents don’t realize is that the world today is changing at a dizzying speed which will require adaptability and survival skills only those exposed to danger and uncertainty can develop.
Disruptive technologies, the likes of Airbnb, Uber, cryptocurrencies, 3-D printers, etc., are upending traditional industries at a breakneck pace. Today’s knowledge will most probably be obsolete in a decade. Survival will not be of the fittest but the ‘unfittest’: those who do not fit in or fill traditional boxes. The prize will be to those who imagine and create new boxes.
Such creativity is only nurtured by experimentation…by courageous trial and error. What is to give light must endure burning, said concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl.
Sheltered and coddled children grow up with little resilience, they give up before they try, are incapable of finding solutions to their own problems, and are not inventive or self-reliant.
Carol Black points out that an ‘uneducated’ person in the highlands of Papua New Guinea can recognize seventy species of birds by their songs. An ‘illiterate’ shaman in the Amazon can identify hundreds of medicinal plants. An Aboriginal person from Australia carries in his memory a map of the land, encoded in song, that extends for a thousand miles. But to know the world, you have to live in the world.
Most children today can’t find their way back home from school without a GPS. They are no longer allowed to live in the world; not the real one at least. No wonder they’re scared of it, or unstimulated by it when compared to the variety and intensity of the virtual worlds they now inhabit.
But the real world cannot be controlled by a joystick or mousepad – it is ‘red in tooth and claw.’ You can’t pause life like a video game and there are no do-overs.
A few, like Caroline (5) and Leia Carrico (8), are fortunate their parents understand the value of exposing them to managed risk and danger. Having received wilderness survival training, they recently survived forty-four hours on their own after getting lost in a heavily-forested area in Humboldt County, CA.
“A free child outdoors will learn the flat stones the crayfish hide under, the still shady pools where the big trout rest, the rocky slopes where the wild berries grow. They will learn the patterns in the waves, which tree branches will bear their weight, which twigs will catch fire, which plants have thorns.” – Carol Black
“In the real world, life is filled with risks—financial, physical, emotional, social—and reasonable risks are essential for children’s healthy development,” says Joe Frost, an influential playground safety consultant. At the core of our safety obsession, adds Tim Gill, author of No Fear, is the idea that children are too fragile or unintelligent to assess the risk of any given situation.
I give children more credit, and in my book, ‘The Hero in You,’ I include this poem by the inimitable rascal and mystic Rumi:
Your old grandmother says,
“Maybe you shouldn’t go to school.
You look a little pale.”
Run when you hear that.A father’s stern slaps are better.
Your bodily soul wants comforting.
The severe father wants spiritual clarity.
He scolds, but eventuallyleads you into the open.
Pray for a tough instructor.
Encouraging and guiding them toward their own heroic journey, I present boys with the value of courage – halfway between timidity and recklessness. I tell them to take risks but with prudence, and to embrace discomfort to achieve mastery and to challenge their convictions.
I do not comfort but challenge them.
Parents who wish to continue sheltering their sons from the real world will do well to keep my ‘dangerous’ book away from them.
Read the companion piece ‘Awakening your Wild Man’: a message to Men, and for women who yearn for the return of the Fierce Gentleman (paywall).
It struck me with the blunt force of a battering ram at the dawn of a new year.
I had spent the previous evening observing the stars and rose early, newly energized by the lessons I’d distilled from the universe.
After an agonizing month’s lull, I was ready to write again. But what? The first two volumes of my Memoir lay dead amid the stacks of unread or rejected manuscripts towering on the desks of over one hundred literary agents. Writing the third and fourth one seemed pointless, for now.
Yet dark, I tiptoed to the kitchen to brew coffee. Not a stir inside my daughter’s farmhouse nestled in California’s wine country. Even Hank and Norman, her two cats, and her dogs, Benji and Clover, lay asleep.
Can’t give up! I told myself. Not after all you’ve sacrificed. Remember the wisdom of the stars: The more urgent the call is to the soul, the greater the resistance. Ram through it!
Back in November, I wrote a series of articles about my writing process. In the third installment, I said I used what I know, to write toward what I want to know, believing it shed light on all the darkness blighting our world.
But is it enough?
At critical moments in history, aren’t artists supposed to cease picking lint from their navels or entertaining crowds, and throw themselves into the world’s bloody arena, there to wage war with their pens and help remedy some of the things that make them shudder?
Shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder. — Leon Kass
I sat at the kitchen table and opened my laptop.
When I’m stumped, I pore over my treasure trove of quotes and poems I’ve collected over a decade. Stuff which makes my soul stir…clarion calls to my inner-warrior.
As the sun crested over the hills, I stumbled upon this, written by Austrian psychologist Alfred Adler: “A man of genius is primarily a man of supreme usefulness.”
It struck me with shattering force.
For the past two years, temporarily encamped at my father’s house tucked in a Northeast swath of wilderness, I’ve been researching the issue of masculinity. I’ve traced some of the world’s most brutal atrocities back to men who suffered major trauma when young. I’ve raised my voice against mass shootings, calling attention to the fact that most have been perpetrated by young men who were also wounded as children. I’ve connected the scourge of climate change to men enthralled with the myth of progress and driven by the imperative to transcend nature.
These things make me shudder.
But is it enough? I repeated the question on that brightening New Year’s morning.
What if instead of casting my unconventional ideas out in cyberspace hoping to catch the attention of those adults with the power to effect change, I spoke directly to young boys? Boys who are growing up in a time when traditional roles for men are shrinking; with a purpose void, as said Warren Farrell and John Gray in ‘The Boy Crisis.’ Boys who instead of useful guidance, are presented with confusing, and often toxic images of masculinity and with false promises and false heroes.
The battle cry that awoke my inner-warrior was sounded by abolitionist Frederick Douglass who said it is easier to build strong children, than to repair broken men.
If we don’t initiate the young, they will burn down the village to feel the heat. — African Proverb
Many villages are burning now.
I imagined myself an elder of a primal tribe tasked with initiating young boys into true, nurturing, and fruitful men. Pictured myself at a campfire huddled with a group of these future men — eyes hopeful, ears eager — listening attentively as I spoke.
“The world needs you,” I’d first tell them.
As the rising sun warmed the dew-clad vines and stirred Hank, Norman, Benji, and Clover awake, I began to write The Hero in You, thrilled with the idea that my message, directly addressed to our disoriented boys, might just be enough to prevent one mass shooting, one great calamity, or begin to heal our planet.
As a writer, I cannot think of a better use for my time and talent.
To my surprise, just two days after launching the book’s Facebook page, more than a hundred people rallied in support.
“My life didn’t start dark and twisted. I started out as a happy and blissful child, living my life to the fullest in a world I thought was good and pure…Ever since I hit puberty, I’ve been forced to endure an existence of loneliness, rejection,and unfulfilled desires.”
Elliot Rodger (22) wrote this in his Manifesto before stabbing three men to death in his apartment. Afterwards, he drove to the sorority house in which my elder daughter lived and shot three female students, killing two. Next, he drove to a nearby deli and shot a male student to death, and then sped through Isla Vista, shooting pedestrians and striking others with his car. Rodger exchanged gunfire with police during the attack, receiving a gunshot to the hip. The rampage ended when his car crashed into a parked vehicle. Police found him dead in the car with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
“Violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering.” – Parker Palmer
What turned Elliot from a “happy, blissful boy”, into a rejected, angry young man, tormented by unfulfilled desires?
Who manufactured his desires and illusions?
On average, American children watch 20,000 commercials per year, 92% of teens are online daily, and eight out of ten men between 18 and 30 view pornography at least monthly.
This is the Magic Realm in which many young men now receive their initiation. It is their distorted window to the world.
As a young boy, Elliot was told by the Realm to be polite and kind; girls like that, they said. But Elliot would soon find out that: “In a decent world, that would be ideal. But the polite, kind gentleman doesn’t win in the real world. The girls don’t flock to the gentlemen. They flock to the alpha male. They flock to the boys who appear to have the most power and status. And it was a ruthless struggle to reach such a height. It was too much for me to handle. I was still a little boy with a fragile mind.”
The Realm creates the illusion that no matter your background you will be accepted. Again, Elliot’s illusions shattered: “I was a bit hesitant to invite anyone from Pinecrest to my mother’s house, because it was located in Canoga Park, a bad area, and most of the kids at Pinecrest were upper-middle class who would look down on me for living there. But I couldn’t back out of this once my mother invited Connor. He came over and all went well, we played a few video games for a couple of hours. But after that playdate, he would always rip on me for living in a “poor” house. He would also tell other kids at Pinecrest about it. This infuriated me to no end.”
The Realm tells us things will be just fine if you work hard, stay out of trouble, and play by the rules. My father did all those things, and now – at age 86, suffering from bladder cancer – he lies in bed wearing a ski-jacket and mittens because he cannot afford to run his furnace, having lost close to three-quarters of his life savings courtesy of the reckless greed and irresponsibility of those that contributed to the stock market crash of 2008.
In this Fairytale World, good always triumphs over evil, heroes never cheat, liars see their noses grow, princesses fall for street urchins, happiness comes in a bottle, you join the army and “become all you can be”, girls enjoy being denigrated and abused (porn), everyone around you seems to be having the time of their life and getting everything they desire (Social Media), and conspicuous consumption – and a funny cat video – earns you the admiration of thousands of fans …it really is a wonderful place.
So, what happens when the light of reality is turned on, when the magic fails and the pixie dust dims?
How do we make sense of a world where good doesn’t always triumph over evil?
Where cads become presidents and heroes cycle on steroids.
When we witness, not the growing noses, but the swelling bank accounts of those who lie, cheat, and deceive.
When princesses don’t normally fall for polite paupers like in Disney’s Aladdin.
When girlfriends refuse to perform like porn stars, or when the cheerleader of your dreams refuses to kiss you because you actually look like a frog so your only choice is to settle for Audrey, your portly classmate with the wide hips and sensible shoes.
When the challenges inherent in every relationship pop our pink bubble of “happily ever after”.
What if the glass slipper won’t fit, but shatters?
When we don’t meet our expectations of success, when that gap gets too wide, violence often becomes the only option – the expression of a fantasy of ultimate individualism and control. – Barry Spector, ‘Madness at the Gates of the City’
Disgruntled and Wronged
Puberty is a bitch.
It’s a fragile time.
A time when young men are struggling to arrive at a sense of self; to think about what is possible, instead of what is real.
Humanistic psychologist, Carl Rogers, said that we all own a real self and an ideal self. The real self of course is what we are intrinsically. The ideal self is the self that we think we want to be, that we strive to be, and that we feel we are expected to be.
The problem arises when our ideal selves are too far removed from what we really are. When the discrepancy is huge, the resulting incongruence can lead us to become disgruntled and discouraged because the real self never seems good enough and the ideal self seems impossible to attain.
The typical personality attribute in mass murderers is one of paranoid traits plus massive disgruntlement, concluded Dr. Michael Stone, a forensic psychiatrist in New York after completing a study of 228 mass killers.
Dr. J. Reid Meloy, a forensic psychologist who consults on threat assessment for universities and corporations, said the most salient feature of mass killers was their belief that they had been wronged.
What wronged them?
The illusions propagated by the Magic Realm.
This feeling of being a failure implies that in the depth of our being we have accepted some objective, if not some worldly, standard of success. – Alain de Botton
Assuming unlimited opportunity makes us believe we can be anything we want to be. This is a characteristically American misinterpretation of the indigenous teaching that we are born to be one thing, and the task of soul-making is to discover it. (Spector)
15 Minutes of Fame
“Boys’ old sense of purpose—being a warrior, a leader, or a sole breadwinner—is fading. Many bright young men are experiencing a ‘purpose void,’ feeling alienated, withdrawn, and addicted to immediate gratification,” write Warren Farrell PhD, and John Gray PhD in ‘The Boy Crisis’.
Absent meaningful purpose, young men are desperate to find something larger than their small lives, and in the Magic Realm, one way to find it is by achieving instant gratification through notoriety.
“I’m going to be famous.” – Robert Hawkins (19), Omaha mass shooter.
“Just look at how many fans you can find for all different types of mass murderers.” – Adam Lanza (20), Sandy Hook.
“Seems the more people you kill, the more you are in the limelight.” – Christopher Harper-Mercer (26), Oregon mass shooter.
“Directors will be fighting for this story.” – Dylan Klebold (17), Columbine
50 people perished for their 15 Minutes of Fame.
Boys will be Boys
They are masculinized in the womb by a bath of testosterone, wrote Chip Brown in ‘How Rites of Passage Shape Masculinity’ for National Geographic.
As boys come of age, Brown says, they are in the midst of a momentous transition, morphing under a fresh influx of the powerful hormone into physically mature men: body hair, defined muscles, bigger shoulders, burgeoning sexuality, an appetite for risk, and potentially elevated levels of aggression. They are coming to grips with behavioral tendencies and patterns programmed by millions of years of evolution.
“Boys will play with dolls, but chances are the dolls will be getting into a fight.” – Joe Herbert, Professor of Neuroscience, University of Cambridge
To ignore or deny this in the name of a gender-neutral society is to neutralize the constructive – often lifesaving – force males can bring to the world.
Masculinity, challenged well, is the reason assistant football coach Aaron Feis died in Parkland shielding students from bullets as he pushed them inside a classroom. The same instinctual response occurred at the Aurora movie theatre in 2012, when three young men died protecting their girlfriends.” – Jason Farrell, author at The Federalist.
The World Doesn’t Count to Three
Is what my father used to tell us when we pleaded him to count to three before ripping off the Band-Aids covering our wounds.
Like other mammals, humans begin life in a maternal womb. This space, bathed in amniotic fluid and kept warm by the surrounding body of the mother, is the archetypal nurturing environment.
After birth, the household – the realm of the Mother – symbolizes the psychological environment needed during the first stage of a boy’s life. It is a protected space, an enclosure in which he can grow relatively undisturbed by toxic intrusions from the surrounding world until his body and mind are prepared to cope with the physical and social worlds into which he has been delivered.
While the mother occupies the symbolic center of the first stage of individuation or selfhood, the father assumes this position in the second stage. The father is needed by the growing ego to gain freedom from the nurturing containment offered by the mother and to instill the rigor of functioning and performance demanded for adaptation to the world.
“Fathers don’t mother,” Yale Psychiatrist Kyle Pruett wrote in Salon Magazine, and a growing body of research demonstrates how important fathers are in a child’s life.
Where the first stage of individuation is characterized by containment and nurturance (the Garden of Eden), the second stage is governed by the law of consequences for actions taken (the reality principle). A person who is living fully in this type of environment has entered the “father world”. This is not the world as ideal but the world as real. Not the Magic Realm, but the world we live in.
Seven of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history were committed by young males. Of the seven, only one was raised by his biological father throughout childhood.
Who fills the void?
The Magic Realm.
Male Initiation in Traditional Cultures
As bridging institutions, schools in the U.S. increasingly play the archetypal role of the paternal parent to a growing boy, whose job it is to help him leave the family container when the years appropriate for nurturing are over and adapt to the demands of adult life in the larger world.
But 80% of teachers are women according on the 2016 survey by the U.S. Department of Education.
Manhood, in other words, is something many American boys must now figure out for themselves.
If we don’t initiate the young, they will burn down the village to feel the heat. – African Proverb
Globally, traditional societies have observed rites of passage signifying the emergence of young men from childhood to adulthood – no concept of adolescence intervened between stages.
Absent meaningful and transformative initiation rituals, young men in America are basically herded into one of three fiefdoms of the Magic Realm:
For the well-off: into competitive consumers.
For those in the middle: the army or the Union.
At the lower rung: the gangs.
None of which makes room for the wider community, Nature, the Feminine, or any other concerns of the ideal, mature masculine.
Led by the elders of the clan, traditional initiation rites of passage seek to prepare young boys to become men in service to their community.
“Discovering your place in the greater web of things, you offer thanks for your gift and return to share it with your people. You take up your new place as an adult in your clan.” – Bill Moyers.
What Can We Do?
I support universal background checks despite Nikolas Cruz (the Parkland shooter), having passed his with flying colors. I support a ban on assault weapons and overhauling our mental health system, but do not believe these measures go far enough, just as the $1.5 trillion this country has spent on drug control since 1971 has done nothing to lower the rate of addiction. Because addiction is not a “drug problem”, but the habitual avoidance of reality. It is the manifestation of despair.
We can go as far as confiscating the 270 million guns owned by Americans, but we will not see an end to the slaughter. The despair will still be there. The Magic Realm’s empty promises will continue disappointing and angering young men like Elliot Rodger, who, I remind you, also used a knife and his car to maim and kill.
And, NO, Mr. President, we don’t need teachers carrying guns. I worked with teachers for ten years. They seem congenitally incapable of operating anything with moving parts: copiers, laminators, etc. They are educators, not vigilantes. We cannot teach them to shoot, as we can’t teach you to empathize.
A Call to the Elders of our Tribe
In Aramaic (the language spoken by Jesus), good and evil do not correspond to what we typically think of as morally right or wrong but have an agricultural meaning and refer to fruit that is ripe (good) and unripe (evil).
America waits for its elders to ripen our young men by guiding them towards their own definitions of Self, worth, and individual and transpersonal purpose; remind them that it’s not their desires but their struggles that define them; to teach them to become the best original version of themselves, rather than an inferior copy of someone else; to shepherd them away from the Magic Realm and teach them to cope with the realities of loneliness, rejection, disappointment, and loss.
I say this half-heartedly. A quick inspection of the “men” leading our tribe will make anyone realize we’re in deep shit.
Schools need more male teachers;
More male mentors pairing-up with troubled teens;
Not a single student eating alone at recess;
Not more Tablets, but more recess and counselors;
Equal emphasis on social-emotional development as placed on academics, and
The goal of the jump is to land close enough to the ground that the diver’s shoulders touch the ground. Any miscalculation on the length of the vine means either serious injury or death. Land diving among the men of Vanuatu, a South Pacific Island, goes back nearly fifteen centuries. The purpose of the ritual is twofold: first, it’s performed as a sacrifice to their gods to ensure a bountiful yam crop, and second, it serves as a rite of passage to initiate the tribe’s boys into manhood.
Ok, maybe not that extreme, but American boys need ritualized outlets for the fresh influx of the powerful hormone: testosterone. Anything but lying on a couch in the Magic Realm, playing at gunning, stabbing, mauling, and dismembering on a video screen.
Pop-up Calls to Kindness
I recently purchased socks online.
Ever since, ads for socks keep popping-up on my screen.
If the Tech Overlords in the Magic Realm can figure out how to do this, why don’t we put their genius and wizardry to better use by having them flood the screens of cyberbullies with pop-up calls to kindness?
And while we are at it, let’s require kids who bully classmates on social media to perform 180 random acts of kindness – one for each day at school.
“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” – Frederick Douglass
Until we have the boldness to tackle the deeper issues that our young men confront, the flags will continue flying at half-mast.
If you are one of our tribal elders, consider mentoring a teenage boy, or play a more active, influential role in the life of a nephew or grandchild.
If, on the other hand, you are a young man entering adulthood and feel lost or disoriented, seek guidance from the older men in your orbit whom you trust and respect, Or find a mentor – your personal Yoda, Obi Wan, Dumbledore, Gandalf. Or drop me a line. Perhaps I can help.
I try not to watch or read news. Haven’t for many years now. I don’t believe there is such a thing anymore, in the proper sense: a factual account of events. The chief currency with which our current media ecosystem traffics is simply outrage. So I decided that if I was to be outraged, or afraid, or indignant, I would do so on my own terms.
I also decided that instead of simply watching the news, I would use my talents to try to change the news.
It’s inescapable, right? The news. Always worming itself into our awareness. It finds us at the supermarket checkout counter, gas pump, or through the unwanted headline flash on our cellphones, like this one:
“TERROR IN LAS VEGAS”
As I read the article, the first thing that came to my mind, was not gun control, or our dysfunctional mental health system (both surely in urgent need of reform) but this African proverb:
“If we don’t initiate the young, they will burn down the village to feel the heat.”
…or mow down sixty people with a hailstorm of bullets, or rape on college campuses, or be complicit in hazing deaths at frathouses.
I immediately intuited that Stephen Paddock, the Vegas mass shooter, grew up without the stable presence of a father, or positive male role models. And I was pretty sure that most of the other recent killings perpetrated by white males with no ideological motive would fit this pattern. I was right.
Some have written about this, but stop short at laying the blame for absent fathers on the dissolution of the “traditional marriage bond” and the concurrent rise of births to single mothers. Let’s do away with no-fault divorce, they clamor, and kids will have fathers again and guns will be silenced. But if young men are opting out of marriage in greater numbers than ever before, just imagine the future trendline if we make it harder and costlier for them to jump ship.
Which brings me to the Mosuo, an ancient tribal community of Tibetan Buddhists living in a lush valley at the far eastern foothills of the Himalayas. A matrilineal society without fathers, without marriage or divorce, and with no words for war, murder, or rape. I have not been able to confirm this, but I’d blindly bet that they have never experienced a mass shooting.
What’s relevant to me about the Mosuo and what happened in Vegas is not their relaxed sexual mores, but the fact that although Mosuo men have no paternal responsibilities, they have considerable responsibility as uncles to their sisters’ children. In fact, along with elderly maternalgreat-uncles, younger uncles are the pivotal male influence on children.
In traditional societies, initiating boys into full-fledged men through rites of passage is the purview of the men of the tribe – particularly the elders – and not just the father. I argue that fathers cannot be sole mentors to their sons because of their subjective, vested interests. Even if they could, we generally don’t listen to our parents. The best piece of advice I ever got from a man, was at age thirty, and came from my father. When I told him I was working sixteen-hour days building up my businesses, he warned:
“Unless your mind can purge itself of sixteen hours of material preoccupations (which probably even extend into your sleep) all your creative visions, or visionary creations will come to naught in the objective plane. Additionally, sooner or later, your mind will snap and you won’t be 30 going on 40, but 35 going straight into the abyss.”
He undershot his prediction by one year. I was 36 when I went straight into the abyss.
Indigenous people know that when young men don’t transform into men, catastrophe results: outwardly against the Other, or inwardly, in depression, addiction or suicide. When a youth is denied initiation, his nobility dies. – Barry Spector
Absent meaningful and transformative initiation rituals, young men in America are basically herded towards one of three troughs:
For the well off: into competitive consumers.
For those in the middle: the army or the Union.
At the lower rung: the gangs.
None of which makes room for the wider community, Nature, the Feminine, or any other concerns of the ideal, mature masculine.
The dangerous vacuum created by these incomplete initiations, calls for the positive influence of other men: uncles, great-uncles, mentors, grandfathers, godfathers, neighbors, and friends, which can make all the difference in a young boy’s life.
If you are one of them, consider mentoring a teenage boy, or play a more active and influential role in the life of a nephew or grandchild.
Keep in mind what Frederick Douglass once wrote:
“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
You might just prevent a tragedy like Vegas.
If, on the other hand, you are a young man entering adulthood, and feel lost or disoriented, seek guidance from the older men in your orbit whom you trust and respect, Or find a mentor – your personal Yoda, Obi Wan, Dumbledore, Gandalf. Or drop me a line. Perhaps I can help.